Several polls have indicated that health care will be a top issue for Americans in their choice of nominee for the 2020 presidential election.1 While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has dramatically cut the number of Americans without health insurance, reduced consumers’ overall out-of-pocket spending, and ensured that people with preexisting health conditions can get the coverage they need, significant problems remain: about 30 million people remain uninsured, an estimated 44 million are underinsured, and health care costs are growing faster than median income in most states.2
Several of the Democratic candidates have proposed health reform plans aimed at addressing these problems. Their proposals range from building on the ACA’s coverage expansions, such as providing more generous subsidies for those purchasing coverage, to creating a public plan option or reorganizing the health system to make a public plan like Medicare the nation’s primary source of coverage.
The Commonwealth Fund’s new Health Insurance in America Survey provides the latest information on the state of health insurance coverage for working-age adults, their coverage experiences and views, and their views of current health policy proposals. To conduct the survey, the survey research firm SSRS interviewed a nationally representative sample of 4,914 adults ages 19 to 64 from March 19 through June 9, 2019. Seventy percent of respondents completed the questionnaire by landline or cell phone, while 30 percent completed it online after being contacted by mail. (This approach represents a significant change from the previous sampling methodology used for the survey and affected trends in responses to certain questions. See “How We Conducted This Study” for more detail.)
- 13.8 percent of U.S. working-age adults are uninsured, down from 19.9 percent just prior to the ACA’s coverage expansions — statistically the same as in 2018.
- Just over a quarter (27%) of adults favor eliminating all private health insurance and making public insurance like Medicare the only coverage option. But 40 percent said they do not know enough to form an opinion.
- While a larger percentage of Democrats (43%) favored replacing all private insurance with a public plan compared to Republicans (12%) and independents (27%), 41 percent said they did not know enough to say.
- More than two-thirds (68%) of adults in states that have not yet expanded Medicaid favor expanding eligibility for the program. Majorities of Democrats (91%) and independents (74%) favor doing so, while Republicans are split, with 42 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed.
- Large majorities of insured adults are satisfied with their current coverage, with those enrolled in Medicaid and employer plans the most satisfied.
As of March–June 2019, 13.8 percent of adults ages 19 to 64 were uninsured. This estimate is not statistically different from uninsured rates in any year following the 2014 rollout of the ACA’s major expansions of coverage.3 It is also consistent with results of other surveys showing the uninsured rate holding steady or slightly increasing (see Uninsured Rate for U.S. Adults Compared to Other National Surveys Since 2013). Adults with low incomes, young adults, and Hispanics or Latinos — groups that made the greatest gains in coverage in the years following the coverage expansions — continue to have among the highest uninsured rates (Table 1).
This year is the first in which Americans no longer face a tax penalty for not having health insurance: Congress repealed the penalty, effective 2019. At the time of the survey, three states — Massachusetts New Jersey, and Vermont — as well as the District of Columbia had passed legislation establishing an individual mandate.4 Among survey respondents living outside these states, 54 percent were aware of the change in federal law, including 55 percent of insured adults and 48 percent of uninsured adults.
Among uninsured adults who were aware the penalty was no longer in effect, 24 percent said they chose not to get health insurance this year because of the change. This translates into about 11 percent of all uninsured adults.5
About 18 percent of U.S. adults shopped for health insurance in the ACA marketplaces in 2019. Of this group, by March–June, 26 percent reported having a marketplace plan. Another 18 percent had enrolled in Medicaid, and 26 percent had employer coverage; 18 percent were uninsured.6
We asked people who visited the marketplaces but didn’t end up enrolling in a plan or in Medicaid why they hadn’t. Half (51%) said the main reason was that they couldn’t find an affordable plan, while one-quarter (26%) had gotten insurance through another source. Four percent decided that they didn’t need health insurance. About one in five cited other reasons, such as their citizenship status or missing the enrollment deadline.
Several Democratic presidential candidates and members of Congress have proposed ways to increase insurance coverage and lower premiums and other health care costs.7 These range from raising the subsidies available for marketplace plans and covering uninsured people in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, to replacing most insurance with a public program like Medicare.
When survey participants were asked about their views on a “Medicare for all”–type approach8 — specifically, one in which a public program like Medicare becomes the only health insurance option for everyone — just over a quarter (27%) of adults said they were in favor of it. But two in five adults (40%) said they did not know enough to say whether they favored or opposed such an approach.
While Democrats were the most strongly in favor of replacing all private insurance with a public plan, 41 percent indicated they needed more information to offer an opinion. Republicans were among the most strongly opposed to the proposal, with only 27 percent saying they didn’t know enough to say (Table 2). However, Republicans with lower incomes were much less likely to oppose the approach than were higher-income Republicans (41% v. 71%) (data not shown).
Seventeen states have not yet expanded eligibility for Medicaid, including two of the most populous states, Florida and Texas.9 An estimated 4.5 million people who would otherwise be eligible for Medicaid are uninsured in those states.10
We asked adults in states that have not expanded Medicaid whether they generally favored or opposed expanding eligibility. More than two-thirds (68%) of respondents in those states favored expansion. Majorities of Democrats (91%) and independents (74%) were in favor. Republicans were split, with 42 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed (Table 3).
Support for Medicaid expansion in these states was stronger among Republicans and independents with lower incomes. More than half (57%) of Republicans with incomes under 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,350 for an individual and $62,750 for a family of four) favored Medicaid expansion, compared to one-third (32%) of Republicans with incomes above that level. Among independents, 81 percent of those with lower incomes were in favor of expansion, compared to 66 percent of those with higher incomes. There was no difference in support by income among Democrats.
One of the key challenges faced by policymakers seeking to reform the health care system is that Americans who have health insurance are generally satisfied with it.
Large majorities of those we surveyed were either somewhat or very satisfied with their health insurance. Satisfaction was particularly high among people with Medicaid and employer coverage. An estimated 228 million people are enrolled in either insurance type.11
Satisfaction was lower among those with coverage purchased on the individual insurance market and marketplaces, an estimated 14 million people. However, there were significant differences by income. People with incomes under 250 percent of poverty, who pay less for their premiums and face lower cost-sharing, reported higher satisfaction with their coverage than those with higher incomes (84% vs. 65%) (Table 4). People with incomes at or above this level pay more, or all, of their premium and do not receive cost-sharing subsidies.
Despite people’s satisfaction with their current source of coverage, many lacked confidence about being able to afford their health care if they became seriously ill. Thirty-eight percent of all adults were either not too confident or not at all confident they would be able to afford their care. This included 29 percent of those with employer coverage, 39 percent of those with Medicaid, and 41 percent with individual-market plans. Uninsured adults expressed the greatest concern about the future: 72 percent were not too or not at all confident they would be able to afford their care if they became seriously ill.
Confidence was lower among people with lower income (Table 5). Nearly half (46%) of adults with incomes under 250 percent of poverty were not too or not at all confident in their ability to afford care if they were to become very sick.
After dropping significantly following the major coverage reforms in 2014, the U.S. uninsured rate has held steady or slightly increased, as our survey and others have shown. Four primary factors are at play:
- Many states have not expanded Medicaid eligibility.
- Premiums can be unaffordable for people with incomes just over the marketplace subsidy threshold ($48,560 for an individual or $100,400 for a family of four).
- Congress and the Trump administration have passed laws and taken executive actions on the ACA, such as repealing the individual mandate penalty and encouraging states to enact work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries.
- Lack of access to subsidized coverage among undocumented immigrants.
This survey indicates that Congress’s repeal of the individual mandate penalty has had a small effect on people’s decisions to get health insurance this year, with about one in 10 uninsured adults opting not to get covered this year because of it. The Congressional Budget Office is projecting that about 7 million people will lack coverage because of the penalty repeal by 2021.12
Ongoing affordability concerns appear to play a more important role than the mandate penalty in people’s decisions to get coverage. In our survey, about half of adults who visited the marketplaces but did not enroll in a plan said they couldn’t find affordable coverage. Another recent survey found that affordability was the top reason why uninsured adults didn’t seek coverage through the marketplaces in the first place, and a top reason why adults with a coverage gap had dropped their individual-market plan.13
Medicaid has been a key component of the ACA’s coverage expansions, and enrollment in Medicaid is now higher than initially projected following the Supreme Court decision that made the expansion optional for states.14 Our survey indicates that nearly all those enrolled in Medicaid are satisfied with their insurance, and it also suggests that expansion has support among the general public. A majority of adults living in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid favor expansion, including a majority of Republicans with incomes under 250 percent of poverty.
Since the ACA’s passage in 2010, Congress has not passed legislation to get more people covered or to improve the affordability or cost-protection of private plans. Though many states have stepped up in multiple ways, it’s clear that improving coverage for all U.S. residents will require federal legislation. Several Democratic members of Congress and presidential candidates have introduced bills or put forth proposals to that end.15 These approaches are an amalgam of provisions that individually or collectively have the potential to make significant improvements in coverage.
Our survey indicates that much of the public currently needs more information before supporting a Medicare-for-all approach. Given the complexity of our health care system, this may also be the case regarding other approaches to improving coverage, including those advanced by Republicans. It may be up to the candidates to educate voters about what their proposals would mean for them and for the health care system, and what financing trade-offs might be required to achieve them.